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Science

Just deleting my twttr: Should we be counting down the days to the last tweet?

Ten years ago this month, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey posted what's cited as the first ever tweet. It read: 'just setting up my twttr.' It was the start of 710918876142432257+ things to come.

People say it changed the world. Four words and a neologism: "twttr."

A man going by the name of - sorry, handle - @jack let it be known he was "just setting up my twttr," as though anyone knew they should care.

It was March 21, 2006.

Ten years later, the moment is being celebrated like the dawn of the printing press, the Enlightenment, and the first quarter pounder with cheese.

So he set up his Twitter (as it was when they changed the name), and then he took a break.

It was indeed the dawn of a new age in microblogging, and more broadly-speaking, social media. So @jack was probably exhausted.

With its 140 character limit, Twitter took the foundations of SMS text messaging and blew the doors wide open. You could potentially tell virtually anyone virtually anything, anywhere. But essentially it was a local area, public, short messaging service.

The numbers

And many of us - about 320 million - do. We tweet about everything from hard news to protest movements, from cooking to coding, and the most inane stuff imaginable on Earth. There is also a fair bit of discrimination and abuse - sexism, racism, hate speech and porn - but we don't like to mention that too much. The main thing is we focus on the numbers, because that's what social media is all about: how many followers you have, how many followers follow them, and how often your tweet about @justinbieber or @KimKardashian got liked or RTd.

But things started slowly. By the end of its first year as a public platform, Twitter could boast a mere 5,000 tweets per day. A year later it was up to 300,000 tweets per day. And then something really changed: Mumbai.

Twitter, the Mumbai attacks and politics

In late November 2008, terrorists attacked various locations in Mumbai, India's financial capital. Twitter is credited with having served as an important and unprecedented communication link for people in the city as well as relatives and observers elsewhere in the world.

Overnight, Twitter morphed into a real-time news feed, fervently cherished by journalists and other "news junkies" - so much so that some don't bother to tell a story if it isn't trending on the site with a sexy hashtag (to wit: #Twitter10!).

Then came the Iran protest in 2009. Apologies. It wasn't a protest. It was a Twitter Revolution. Egypt had one too. As did Ukraine and Tunisia.

There has been much debate since then about the merits of Twitter, and other social media such as Facebook, as conduits for collective political action. One of the key points relates to where people are when they tweet. Are they in the country, on the scene, or are they tweeting from some remote destination and acting as an "information hub," as Evgeny Morozov describes Iran-born @oxfordgirl in his book "The Net Delusion." If you've read that, you should also read "Political Turbulence" by Margetts, John, Hale and Yasseri for a more scientific analysis of the impact of Twitter (and others) on collective action. It cites US campaigns #BlackLivesMatter, #Ferguson and #ICantBreathe among others as indicative of Twitter's role in mobilizing people.

These are just two books in an ocean of possibilities.

One thing is for sure: politicians started to take note after these moments in recent history. Some governments and police forces use Twitter for surveillance (negative?). Some politicians use it for PR (positive?).

Rise of the #twully (Twitter bully)

Twitter is said to have changed the way we communicate. It's certainly made the spread of news and views much faster than the plain old Internet. We carry it around in our pockets, and everything is bite-size - for now.

But there are acts of kindness on Twitter that are the same as those elsewhere. And there are acts of abuse that are no different either.

So enter the troll and social bullying. Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez faced threats of rape on Twitter during her efforts to have more women represented on British banknotes. Two people were jailed as a result.

But it is only one of a raft of examples, a lot of them in Britain. Some are less violent but threatening all the same. They have a lot in common with a growing trend of "no-platforming," the aggressive shutting down of arguments that just don't fit your worldview.

Just deleting my twttr

Earlier this year, the comedian Stephen Fry got into the now notorious #baglady brouhaha at this year's BAFTA awards. Fry had referred to Jenny Beavan, a costume designer and friend, with this quip: "Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to an awards ceremony dressed as a bag lady."

The retribution on Twitter was swift - even though Beavan said she was not offended.

Unable to face the ensuing criticism, Fry closed his account and suggested he may turn his back on the UK to live in Los Angeles.

The last tweet

Such things don't bode well for Twitter's reputation.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Twitter, however, is its own profile and traditional media's sense of Twitter's importance.

Twitter IPO

CEO Jack Dorsey (second from left) at Twitter's New York IPO

Twitter's 320 million users pale in significance against Facebook's 1.5 billion members. It ought to worry seriously about Facebook's relevance as a media and news platform. Facebook is keen to be the all-seeing, all-providing information hub. Its success has become self perpetuating, as the bigger it gets, the more it becomes the obvious choice for people who want to be on social media.

Twitter, by contrast, has stalled. Since its IPO in November 2013, the growth of its active users has slowed. Even the number of tweets per day - somewhere in the range of 500 and 700 million - has remained apparently stable. And that's no good. Let's not even mention its share price (which has halved since 2013).

It's introduced new tools such as Vine and Periscope, and Moments for targeted news about things that "matter now." Its advertising has got more sophisticated - but that runs the risk of pushing users away.

And what of its intention to drop the limit of 140 characters to give people 10,000 characters with which to play? People are already writing "Twitter essay." But wouldn't you rather read a book instead?

The bottom line is, Twitter is by no means too big to fail. It is a ten year old echo chamber of all too often childish tantrums. And just because it grows older, it doesn't mean it will grow wiser too.

So @jack, happy birthday! I would say "Here's to the next 10," but who can say?

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